consent agenda

TESD Public Information Committee meeting tonight!

Tonight at 6:30 PM at the TESD Administration Building, is the first meeting of the T/E School District Public Information Committee, chaired by school board member Scott Dorsey —  click here for the agenda.  Dorsey is committed to improving communication with the public and encouraging open dialogue between the Board and residents.

Unfortunately, I am unable to attend tonight’s meeting but I have a personal ‘wish list’ for the Public Information Committee to consider and will send a copy to Mr. Dorsey for his consideration.

  • Change how residents ask questions at school board meetings. Residents should be able to ask their question and receive an answer not have to wait until all the questions are asked before receiving an answer.
  • Televise the School Board meetings live, as is down with the Board of Supervisors meetings. I advocate for Finance Committee meetings to be televised.
  • Coordinate regular School Board meetings and Board of Supervisors monthly meetings == too often they fall on the same Monday nights.
  • Encourage open dialogue between the residents and the School Board – an example took place at last week’s Finance Committee meeting where residents were encourage to ask questions and participate. Questions were answered immediately with no standing in line.  I would like to see that refreshing relationship continue at regular school board meetings.
  • Provide sufficient details and supporting documentation on the financials and budget so the public understands where the numbers come from – too often, the public is not provided with the necessary background for the numbers to make any sense.
  • Many school districts, including Unionville Chadds Ford School District have the email address of school board members listed on their website.  We don’t need to have their ‘personal’ emails, (like UCFSD) but I think that there should be a way for the public to communicate directly with the Board.  Currently all emails to the school board are filtered through Art McDonnell.  Why is Art McDonnell, the business manager, the filter for resident’s emails to the school board?  This does not seem like an appropriate use of time by one of the highest compensated TESD employees.
  •  I would like to see the end to the consent agenda.  Too many non-routine items ended up on the consent agenda – as examples in  2013, included on the consent agenda was the hiring of Andy Chambers and salary increase to the administrators. Other school districts (including UCFSD) do not use the consent agenda for that reason.
  • Respect and civility is a two-way street.  The Board members (plus District solicitor and staff) should be encouraged to respect the residents at meetings as should the residents to to the Board.
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League of Women Voters Debate: Part I, TE School Board Candidates

democrats-republicansYesterday, the League of Women Voters held the TE School Board candidate debate and the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors candidate debate.  I attended both debates.  Although the debates were not shown live, they will be available for viewing (Comcast 2 and Verizon 24 channels) sometime after Monday’s Board of Supervisors Meeting.  My guess is that there will be separate schedules for the two debates – check the township website for details.

Unfortunately, due to the lateness of scheduling, the school board debate was limited to a 1-hour format versus the 2-hour supervisor debate format.  In speaking with the League of Women Voters representative, Mary Lou Dondero, before the debate, I learned more about their scheduling process.  Ms. Dondero was none too pleased about the lateness of which the school board candidates debate was scheduled.  When asked who was responsible for debate scheduling, it was interesting to learn that it not the local political party leaders that should ask but rather the candidates themselves who should contact the LWV.  This is good information to know going forward.

Six of the eight school board candidates participated (due to prior commitments, Easttown Democrats Maryann Piccioni and Jean Kim were unable to attend). After each candidate presented a 2-minute opening personal statement, the moderator read questions, which audience members had anonymously submitted.  Each question was answered by all candidates with the moderator giving each candidate the opportunity to be first to answer.  Following the questions, each candidate had an opportunity for a 2-minute closing statement.

The LWV debate is not the traditional format that many of us recall from our high school/college days, but rather a Q&A forum. The downside of the LWV debate style is it does not allow for rebuttal by candidate. Case in point, the LWV repeatedly asked the candidates (both school board and supervisors) to respond to the specific question yet several candidates answered the LWV questions with accusations against their opponents.  Due to the LWV format, it made it difficult for the candidates to defend the accusations.

Everyone that follows Community Matters knows that I fought for a school board candidate debate.  Important school district issues surfaced this year, making for a contentious situation for all involved — the Board, administration, employees and the public.  For my efforts in moving the school board debate forward, some questioned my agenda.  If I had an agenda, it was simple – voters need to ‘know’ the candidates and candidates need to have the opportunity to deliver their views on issues, before Election Day.  Hindsight being 20/20, I’m actually glad that I had nothing to do with the school board debate other than to attend.  I cannot be accused of unfairness or a bias in the organization of the debate – candidates were not coerced; they own their words.

For those of us who regularly attend and/or watch the school board meetings, there was little surprise in most of the audience questions. As a result of contentious school board meetings this year, many of the questions related to communication, trust, transparency and morale issues, — asking what would the candidates do to ‘improve’ the current situation, if elected.

Five of the six candidates spoke of the need to improve communication and several of them mentioned morale issues.  School board director Rich Brake (R), who is seeking re-election, accepted that there have been communication issues between the Board and the residents and spoke of the need to improve the dialogue, suggesting town hall meetings. Brake believes that the negativity issues need to be handled directly and wants to bring people together. It was refreshing to have a current elected official acknowledge the problems, accept responsibility and suggest ways for improvement.

With a similar response, Brake’s opponent Scott Dorsey (D) supports greater transparency and open dialogue between the public and the Board, suggesting a public advisory board. Dorsey spoke out against the Board’s use of the consent agenda and suggested its use should be reconsidered. The consent agenda is designed for routine items, such as meetings minutes. However, as Dorsey explained, the consent agenda takes away the public’s right to question an issue.  The consent agenda can bury an item that the Board does not want publically discussed.  In my opinion, in 2013 we saw the misuse of the consent agenda by the school board for the hiring of Andy Chambers and the inclusion of administrator raises and bonuses.  If the hiring of the former police chief as the District’s security expert or giving raises to the administrators was such a  good idea, why not openly discuss them in a public school board meeting, than than buried in a consent agenda. Dorsey was the only candidate to address the consent agenda issue.

Easttown Republicans Doug Carlson and Virginia Lastner spoke favorably on the topic of communication, wanting to see greater resident participation and awareness of District issues.  Lastner wants the employees to feel that they can speak candidly and not risk their jobs by speaking out.  Referring to her background and prior elected positions in Connecticut, Lastner is a proponent of the “listen and learn” concept.

Tredyffrin school board candidate Pete Connors (R) remarks on this topic included “morale starts with leadership”.  Connors believes that there exists a trust issue in the community and proposed an advisory citizens group.  He specifically cited the threat of outsourcing and the proposed demolition of the tennis courts where the Board was forced to reverse their decisions due to the public.  Concerned about the Board’s lack of transparency that has decisions being made in private, Connors promoted a greater sharing of information with the public.

The consistent theme from Brake, Dorsey, Connors, Lastner and Carlson was the need for the school board to provide greater communication opportunities for the public. Dorsey, Brake and Connors took it a step further and spoke of changing the negative tone, improving trust and respectfulness and supporting the creation of some type of citizen advisory group.

As president of the school board, Kevin Buraks (D) was center front to the confrontational monthly and committee school board meetings of 2013 yet did not agree with the other candidates on District morale or communication issues.  Unmistakably Buraks is disconnected to the important issues raised by his fellow school board director Rich Brake and by Democrat Scott Dorsey.  At times, it was hard to believe that Buraks and Brake are both on the same school board or that Buraks and Dorsey are representing the same local political party.

Responding to a question, Buraks stated clearly that there are no morale issues in the District. He further commented that if there were moral issues in the District, the employees would leave.  On the issue of communication, his stance is that the school board already provides an open forum, is transparent and that through emails, website, etc. all District information is available.  He pointed out that the Board listened to the public about the demolition of the tennis courts and the outsourcing of the aides and paras and reversed their decision. In other words, according to school board president Kevin Buraks, there is no trust, respect or communication issues in the school district. He backed these assertions by continuously pointing to T/E school district’s rankings as his proof.

So overall, was there any new ‘news’ or any surprises learned from the school board candidate debate for me?  Yes and no.  Because I regularly attend the school board meetings and understand most of the issues, some of the information was not new.  However, I did not know the background and views of Easttown residents Virginia Lastner and Doug Carlson, so appreciated the opportunity to learn more about them.  I know candidates Pete Connors and Scott Dorsey and both have previously spoken out about the District’s communication and transparency issues, so was not surprised by their responses.

The surprise was in the school board incumbents performances. Perhaps it is because Kevin Buraks is an attorney, but his stance during the debate was not to back down or take responsibility for any of the public’s  perceived ‘miss-steps’ of the school board or of his term as the president.  I guess as an attorney, you make a calculation and then stand by your decision, using the mantra of no ‘do-overs’ allowed. Taking the approach that because the TE School District is highly ranked, Buraks wants the voters to believe it is a result of his leadership.  Other the other hand, incumbent Rich Brake took a completely different approach and surprised me with his candor. Portraying himself as somewhat of a school board outsider, Brake acknowledged that there needs to be greater dialogue with the public and more openness.  Whereas Buraks would have the public believe that everything is cohesive and agreeable among the school board directors, Brake paints a very different picture.

These are my personal observations from the school board debate, I welcome others who attended to contribute their opinion.  If you did not attend the debate, I would encourage you to watch in on online when it is available.

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1/28/13 TESD Consent Agenda Item — Approval for Administrator Bonuses & Compensation Plan

Included for priority discussion at Monday’s TESD meeting is the reconsideration of a District Safety Consultant and the hiring of Andy Chambers for the position.  The hiring of Chambers was previously included in the January 7 TESD meeting on the consent agenda but was not originally listed on the meeting agenda. Without proper notice on an agenda, the public is deprived of its right to be present and to know when decisions affecting the public are being made.

Yesterday, I received an anonymous email suggesting that I review the consent agenda for the January 28 meeting, specifically section C – Personnel. Admittedly, when I reviewed the agenda for the upcoming TESD meeting, my attention was to the safety consultant matter, overlooking this significant item.  Included on tomorrow’s consent agenda is the following:

C.  Personnel
1.  Routine Personnel Actions
The Board will take action on routine resignations, releases, retirements, leaves, and
appointments. The Board will also take action to record the names of volunteers who
have served in the schools in recent weeks.
2.  Supervisory and Confidential Employee Compensation Plan, Compensation
Adjustments for 2013 – 2014 and January 2013 One Time Bonuses
3.  Administrator Compensation Plan, Compensation Adjustments and January 2013 One
Time Bonuses
4.  Contracted Services

The description of ‘consent agenda’ on the January 28 TESD School Board agenda states, “Although Board action is required, it is generally unnecessary to hold discussion on these items. With the consent of all members, they are therefore grouped and approval is given in one motion.”

The purpose of a consent agenda is to group routine, noncontroversial items together to be voted on under one motion.  Items on the consent agenda should be routine items that board members don’t need any further information on prior to voting. The purpose of a consent agenda should not be used to hide important issues or stifle discussion.

Who is reviewing the TESD meeting agendas? For the January 7 TESD meeting, there was no mention made of anything related to ‘safety’ listed on the agenda, yet the hiring of Andy Chambers as the District Safety Consultant is added last-minute to the consent agenda.  Now a couple of weeks later at the next Board meeting, we have administrator compensation and bonuses listed as routine consent agenda items.  Again, … who is reviewing these meeting agendas?

Of the 141-page agenda, 40 pages are devoted to the compensation plan for supervisory and confidential employees and administrators and their one-time January 2013 bonuses.  To include the approval of non-bargaining administrator salaries, benefits and their bonuses in a consent agenda can hardly be considered ‘routine’!

The Sunshine Act, no more than the discussion to outsource the custodians or aides as a cost-savings budget strategy, does not protect the discussion of administrator compensation and bonuses. The School Board and Finance Committee meetings have repeatedly discussed various budget strategies including increasing class size, student activities fees, possible further cuts to educational programming and recently the decision to review non-profits’ use of real property for qualified tax exempt status.

To my knowledge (someone please correct me if I’m wrong), there has never been any public discussion of a (1) supervisory and confidential employee compensation plan, (2) compensation adjustment for 2013-14 or (3) one-time January 2013 bonuses.  So now, the matter just appears on the consent agenda for approval.  How is this possible?

In a review of ‘Compensation Plan for Supervisory and Confidential Employees” (pgs. 61-77), I read the following:

January 2013 – July 1, 2013 a one-time bonus will be awarded to each employee based upon the Superintendent’s recommendation. On July 1, 2013 adjustment to base for selected employees shall be recommended by the Superintendent.

July 1, 2014 – July 1, 2016:
For each of the academic years beginning July 1, 2014 and through to June 30, 2016, 1.7% of the total salaries of this group, from the prior year, will be available in a pool for the Superintendent to distribute, at his discretion and with Board approval, as base salary increases. Specific percentage increases will vary among members of the group. In June of each year, beginning in June 2014, a 1% one-time bonus will be awarded each individual for the previous year’s service.

Individual Salary/Compensation Changes:
1. Individual may receive an increase to his/her base salary
2. Individual may receive bonus (merit) adjustment which is not added to base salary, but paid throughout the current school year or paid in the form of a lump sum
3. Combination of the above

The Act 93 Agreement, the ‘Administrator Compensation Plan’, January 29, 2013 through June 30, 2017 (pgs. 78-101) contains the following:

January 2013-June 2017
In January 2013, each administrator shall receive a one time bonus for service in the previous two and half years as approved by the Board at its January 28, 2013 regular meeting. In addition, adjustments to base salary for the previous two and a half years will be approved by the Board at its January 28, 2013 regular meeting.

For each of the academic years beginning July 1, 2013 and through to June 30, 2017, 1.7% of the total salaries of this group, from the prior year, will be available in a pool for the Superintendent to distribute, at his discretion and with Board approval, as base salary increases; specific percentage increase will vary for any one individual.

Beginning in June 2014, and continuing annually in June of each year, a one time bonus of 1% of the individual’s salary will be awarded to each administrator for service in the previous year.

The Board may not have had any questions about the compensation plan and the bonuses, but I do —

  1. When did the School Board discuss the compensation plan and bonuses, or are they seeing this for the first time as a consent agenda item?
  2. Where was the public discussion about the administrator compensation plan?
  3. Where was the public discussion about supervisory and confidential employees receiving a one-time bonus? And it’s to be paid this month!
  4. What is the value of the one-time bonus? A percentage of salary or a set dollar amount (similar to the teachers $2500 bonus)
  5. How is the bonus calculated?
  6. What is the budget impact of the increased compensation?
  7. What is the value of the one-time bonus?
  8. Where is the money for the increased compensation and bonuses coming from?  (Is this how the District is using the $3.9 million surplus from 2011/12 that was announced in November 2012)
  9. What does the ‘adjustments to the base salary for the last 2-1/2 years’ mean?  Is the salary increase to the administrators retroactive?
  10. The financial distribution to administrators is at the discretion of Dan Waters?

How is it that something so important as this compensation and bonus plan can just get thrown in on a consent agenda without discussion? Bottom line …   where is the fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency to the public?

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